Three decades ago, a man linked to the El Salvador government militia shot Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in the heart as he said Mass.

Since then, Salvadorans have been fighting to have him canonized – but for years their efforts have been rebuffed. Now, with the accession of Pope Francis to the papacy, Salvadorans have renewed hope that their believed Archbishop will finally begin his path to sainthood.

On Palm Sunday, hundreds gathered at the church where he was killed on March 24, 1980, some carrying signs calling him "Saint Romero of America." 

"We are more hopeful that at last Romero will be beatified. He is a martyr. He is a saint," said Lucia Escalante, a retired schoolteacher of 65. 

We are more hopeful that at last Romero will be beatified. He is a martyr. He is a saint. They killed Romero for defending the weakest, the poorest, for saying the truth, for denouncing injustice, and he is a martyr of the church.

- Lucia Escalante, a retired schoolteacher

"They killed Romero for defending the weakest, the poorest, for saying the truth, for denouncing injustice, and he is a martyr of the church," she said.

Church leaders say they believe Francis' accession to the papacy will help their effort to win beatification and eventual sainthood for Romero, who was killed after his increasingly strident defense of Central American nation's poor and denunciations of government violence. His killing was one of the triggers that set off a civil war that left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing over the next 12 years.

A large crowd then marched nearly four miles (seven kilometers) to the cathedral where he is entombed.

There, Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas told worshippers "there are sufficient merits to canonize Monsignor Romero" and said that his predecessor "was not a political personality; he was a pastor of the church," indirectly alluding to those who say his killing was a political act rather than a killing for religious reasons.

The crusade to have Romero beatified made sluggish progress under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who distrusted the socially active, often left-leaning parts of the church that most honor him.

But the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Gregorio Rosa Chavez, said he is convinced that hopes are brighter under the new pope, who had a reputation for ministering to the poor as bishop and archbishop in Argentina.

He noted that Francis said he "wants a church that is poor and that is for the poor. That is what Monsignor Romero said so many times, and it is the church he left us," Rosa Chavez said.

On the day before Romero was shot, he had issued a message to the military: "In the name of God and of this suffering people, I pray of you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression."

A U.N. truth commission report determined that the mastermind of the slaying was army Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, who founded the conservative party that ruled the country from 1989 to 2009. Those responsible were never prosecuted, in part due to an amnesty law passed by the government shortly before the truth commission report was issued in 1993.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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